To the outside observer it may seem as though film critics don’t have a very positive relationship with dumb movies. After all, we see dumb movies all the time and we dare to call them “dumb.” But although that’s an important part of our job I can totally understand why some people think that we can sometimes be a little unfair. After all, with a film like Monster Trucks – which is a film about monsters, who are also trucks – how smart could you possibly expect it to be?
To put it another way, in the form of a question I get asked all the time: “Why can’t you just turn off your brain and enjoy the movie?”
The answer, of course, is because turning off your brain shouldn’t be necessary to enjoy a movie, even a dumb one. To use the example of Monster Trucks (which is particularly fitting since I am reviewing it right now), here we have a film whose concept is so completely inane that the filmmakers have to spend half the movie explaining why it makes even the tiniest amount of sense. This film is so committed to its fundamentally idiotic idea that I can’t help but respect it on an intellectual level.
Because it’s one thing to take a dumb idea, like alien robots that turn into marketable products, and treat it like it’s somehow important. That sort of approach tends to make laughable ideas like Transformers seem all the more laughable. But the light touch that director Chris Wedge has applied to Monster Trucks is perfectly fitting to the material. This movie plays like Herbie the Love Bug if the anthropomorphic car also had slimy tentacles, and there’s a part of me that will always be ten years old who thinks that’s pretty neat.
What’s more, there’s an adult in me as well who doesn’t feel insulted by this. The filmmakers have obviously thought longer than any rational mind should ever have to think about how to turn the title “Monster Trucks” into a movie that isn’t condescending. What’s more, they were wise to present their ideas with bright imagery and a cheerful tone. It’s an approach that is reassuring to even the most cynical of minds. Monster Trucks sets the stage for modest expectations and it mostly meets them. This is a matinee film for little kids, and it’s mostly a good one.
I say “mostly” (twice) because all the effort that went into making the audience accept that there are amphibious monsters who can only move on land by propelling trucks at ludicrous speeds seems to have taken its toll on the film’s good manners. Lucas Till, playing the oldest teenager in recent movie history, is understandably distracted by the fact that he’s got a monster in his garage, but that’s no excuse for how casually mean he can be to the people in his life who are only trying to be nice to him. Barry Pepper plays his stepfather, whose only real sin is being a stepfather, and our protagonist treats him like a total jerk. Jane Levy plays a wonderful human being whose only sin is having a crush on our hero, and our hero rolls his eyes so hard that they practically hit her in the face.
We know that we’re supposed to like the protagonist of Monster Trucks, and Lucas Till is a charming enough actor that we more-or-less do. But instead of treating this ugly behavior as a character deficiency that he has to grow out of, the movie pretty much seems to ignore that he’s got a real attitude problem, and that the kids in the audience probably shouldn’t be encouraged to behave like this. The makers of Monster Trucks are willing to take a stand against the tyranny of oil companies but not against everyday adolescent rudeness, and there’s something undeniably “off” about that.
But just like it’s possible to enjoy a dumb movie without turning off your brain, so too is it possible to enjoy a movie in the aggregate while still acknowledging its flaws. Monster Trucks is almost as good as a movie like Monster Trucks possibly could be, with an amusing sequence of events that invites the audience to accept, however briefly, that trucks would be even better if they were also monsters. And, briefly, I was willing to go along with it.
Monster Trucks is a very entertaining matinee movie, one that plays like an overly expensive adaptation of an absurd 1980s cartoon series that all us adults would have watched when we were children. If such a show had existed we no doubt would have nostalgia for it now, and Monster Trucks manages to evoke that same sense of nostalgia while simultaneously being something completely new. New and dumb. Dumb but fun.
Top Photo: Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.